Frequent commenter Vmaximus noticed in the comments of this post that I was talking with/about warrant officers, and wanted to know where they fit into the scheme of things. My initial, snarky answer was that they tend to stand around and drink coffee. And while that is somewhat true, it isn’t the whole story.
Warrant Officers fill a niche between non-commissioned officers and regular, commissioned officers. They are technical specialists, imbued with the authority of an officer, but more keenly focused on a particular technical area than a regular officer. For instance, most of the Army’s watercraft have a Warrant Officer as the ships Master. Warrant officers hold a warrant from the Secretary of their service, rather than a commission from the President.
All branches of service are authorized Warrant Officers, in grades W-1 through W-5. Currently, the Air Force doesn’t have any warrant officers, and the Coast Guard has no W-5s.
Warrant officers are higher in rank than all enlisted personnel, as well as cadets and officer candidates, but below regular commisioned officers, such as a Second Lieutenant.
Now, here’s where it gets weird. In actuality, on warrant officers in the first grade, W-1, have warrants. When they are selected for promotion to Chief Warrant Officer (CWO-2) they receive a commission from the President and take the same oath of office as any other officer. This came about in the early 90’s as a means of allowing warrant officers to fulfill some duties that they previously couldn’t. For instance, without the commission, they could not assume command of a unit. In spite of holding a commission, they are still called warrant officers.
So what do warrant officers do and where to they come from? As I mentioned, they are technical specialists. For instance, each mechanized infantry battalion has a warrant officer assigned to its motor pool. He is the subject matter expert on the Army’s maintenance system. He knows which repairs should be performed at the battalion level, and which should be sent to a higher echelon for repair. He understands how the parts supply system is supposed to work (and how it really works!) and advises and assists the officers in making the battalion maintenance system work. He also leads, trains and advises the NCOs that work in the motor pool. While the NCOs know pretty much everything there is to know about how to perform the repairs done at their level, he can guide them on how to prioritze work, ensure they have the parts they need, and make arrangements to send vehicles and parts to other units for repair.
What makes this guy and expert? Well, he started out as an NCO. After years of service, he applied for and was accepted into the Warrant Officer program. He attended a school much like Officer Candidate School, was granted his warrant, went to the Warrant Officer Basic Course for his specialty, and put to work.
When you talk about warrant officers to the general public, however, the program that usually springs to mind is Warrant Officer Flight Training. The Army has a heck of a lot of aircraft. The other services use commissioned officers to fly their aircraft. But the Army has a limit on how many regular officers it can have at one time. If all the aviators were regular officers, there wouldn’t be enough officers for the rest of the Army. Instead, the Army trains warrant officers to be aviators. And while many Warrant Officer Flight Training Candidates come from the ranks of the Army, it is in fact possible to enlist specifically for this program. It is sometimes called “High School to Flight School.”